The Epic of Gilgamesh

"I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh. This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labour, returning he rested, he engraved on a stone the whole story."

--The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by N. K. Sandars (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1972), p. 61.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a series of Mesopotamian tales that recount the exploits of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk. We learn of his overwhelming power, his friendship with Enkidu, and his quest for eternal life. We also read of a great flood that devastated the region. Several cuneiform texts dating to approximately 750 B.C.E. that make up the Gilgamesh epic were found by archaeologists who excavated the library of King Ashurbanipal at Ninevah. Scholars have also discovered fragmentary evidence that places the origin of the Gilgamesh stories in the age of the Sumerian city-states. A list of kings indicates that there was a ruler of Uruk named Gilgamesh in about 2600 B.C.E.

The Text's History:

Though The Epic of Gilgamesh appears in numerous anthologies of primary sources in ancient history, it is in many respects a modern text. There is no set of perfectly intact cuneiform tablets that offers the Epic as we encounter it in books today. Nineteenth and twentieth century scholars have located and deciphered several partial texts and cobbled them together to offer a "complete," or at any rate coherent narrative. Moreover, these texts (written in different languages) were not found at a single location, but at several places in both Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The Gilgamesh referred to in the Epic has an historical correlate in a King Gilgamesh who is mentioned in lists of Sumerian kings, but there is no evidence regarding his life and actions apart from the fragmentary texts that comprise the Epic. Finally, though a King Gilgamesh evidently lived during the third millennium B.C.E., the oldest text fragment of the Epic were discovered in a library that dates to the first millennium B.C.E.

Questions to Consider:

1. What are some of the problems that can accompany historians' use of a text that has been reconstructed from several fragments and then translated and amended to provide a narrative that appears complete?

2. Does is matter whether or not there was a "real" historical Gilgamesh? Why or why not? What are the limitations of or opportunities for historical study that our answers to these questions establish?

3. How important are the issues of the dating of this text and the fragmentary character of the Epic? How might we explain or challenge the long chronological gap beetween the date of the text artifacts and the dates of the reign of the historical King Gilgamesh? How can we find out more about the current state of scholarship regarding the Gilgamesh texts?

Text sources:

The book version of the text most often used in college-level courses--and the one quoted above--is N.K. Sandars' translation, The Epic of Gilgamesh (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972). Other English translations are also available. Passages taken from The Epic of Gilgamesh also appear in most of the World or Western Civiilization readers. Teachers and students may find these books more useful for their purposes than an online version of the text. The questions on the next page (click on Questions about the Gilgamesh text below) do not refer readers to any particular edition of the text.

Internet sources:

An online introduction to the Gilgamesh text can be found at:

Examples of cuneiform tablets and further information on ancient Mesopotamian languages and cultures are found at this site listed below, maintained by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago:

The University of Birmingham, England, offers background information and discussions of current research at its Cuneiform Database website:

Christopher Siren's site contains helpful information on Mesopotamian mythology as well as useful links to other sites:

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